in Arthurian Fantasy
by Bill Hiatt
Taliesin Weaver thought that he had saved himself and his friends when he defeated the witch Ceridwen. He was wrong.
He always thought of evil as embodied in external threats that he could overcome in combat. Soon he will discover that the worst evil has been inside of him all along….Tal’s girlfriend is in a coma for which he holds himself responsible. A close friend, suffering from a past-life memory trauma similar to Tal’s, is getting worse, not better. Morgan Le Fay is still lurking around and has an agenda Tal can’t figure out. Supernatural interruptions in his life are becoming more frequent, not less so, despite his expectations. In fact, Tal learns that something about his unique nature amplifies otherworldly forces in ways he never imagined were possible, ways that place at risk everyone close to him.
Tal and his allies must face everything from dead armies to dragons. As soon as they overcome one menace, another one is waiting for them. More people are depending on Tal than ever; he carries burdens few adults could face, let alone a sixteen-year-old like himself. Yet somehow Tal at first manages to handle everything the universe throws at him.
What Tal can’t handle is the discovery that a best friend, almost a brother, betrayed him, damaging Tal’s life beyond repair. For the first time, Tal feels a darkness within him, a darkness which he can only barely control…assuming he wants to. He’s no longer sure. Maybe there is something to be said for revenge, and even more to be said for taking what he wants. After all, he has the power…
Can Tal stop himself before he destroys everyone he has sworn he will protect?
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an excerpt from
Divided Against Yourselves
by Bill Hiatt
It was just a few days after Thanksgiving, but the memory of the feast I had pretended to enjoy was already fading, and even though winter break was only a couple of weeks away, I couldn’t seem to get excited about the holidays or even about time off from school, though I could use it. What with a heavy class schedule, soccer practice, band practice, and combat practice, I was feeling the schedule squeeze most of the time. And then there was visiting Carla, as I did every day after soccer practice. People told me I didn’t have to visit every single day, but somehow I couldn’t stay away from the gaze of those dead eyes, the void where her mind used to be, a void I almost got lost in every time I tried to probe her.
Yeah, probe her. I could read minds, remember, at least when there was a mind to read. Oh, well, if you’re just “tuning in” now, I wasn’t just the ordinary teenager my parents, and most of the rest of the world, thought I was. At age twelve, the barrier between my current life and all my past lives came crashing down, flooding me with memories of all those lives. I managed to recover from those revelations, but my life was never the same after that. After all, being a reincarnation of the original Taliesin, King Arthur’s bard, was hard enough to absorb all by itself, let alone all of the other lives I had to deal with and the discovery that I could work magic. Oh, and let’s not forget that someone who knew who I was started trying to kill me shortly after I turned sixteen. Yeah, I beat the odds over and over again in the last few months. Carla was not so lucky.
You see, in the big battle against my enemy, Ceridwen, Carla got hit with the same spell that had awakened my past lives four years ago. The problem was, she got hit with it twice. That extra shot might have killed her; instead, it left her comatose—and I couldn’t shake the feeling that her condition was my fault. I had let unsuspecting “civilian” friends go with me to that confrontation, thinking I knew what was going to happen. Well, seeing the future was never one of my gifts, but I had acted as if I could, and now Carla was paying the price.
She could wake up, of course, but the longer she stayed this way, the less chance there was, and her doctors had the disadvantage of having no idea what they were dealing with. Come to think of it, though, what could they have done even if they had known? I didn’t think medical schools covered counter-spells these days.
Actually there were two people in Santa Brígida, our little town, who might have been able to help, in theory. Nurse Florence, a member of the Order of the Ladies of the Lake and currently under cover as our high school’s nurse, had originally come to Santa Brígida to watch over me after I was “awakened,” when I was still confused and vulnerable. Well, at least more confused and vulnerable than I was now—I hadn’t quite gotten over the confusion. Anyway, she knew more than a little magic, particularly healing magic. There was also Vanora, a colleague of hers from Wales who saved me in the big battle by preventing me from saving Carla. (Vanora wasn’t exactly on my Christmas card list, but I would have forgiven all if she had come up with a way to cure Carla.) Together they had tried pretty much every trick in both of their books and had failed…over and over and over. Ceridwen had crafted that awakening spell herself, and with her dead, no one else knew how it worked. Perhaps if we had kept Ceridwen alive…but no, she had nearly beaten us, and as much as I wanted Carla to be all right—well, let’s be honest, as much as I loved Carla—I couldn’t have risked everyone else I ever knew or cared about by gambling that we could have found a way to keep Ceridwen prisoner. For that matter, even if she had survived, I couldn’t imagine what would have moved her to divulge the secret of the spell.
“Hey, Tal!” said a high, prepubescent voice right behind me. Without turning around, I knew it was the voice of Gianni, Carla’s little brother.
“Gianni, are your parents here?” I asked. The hospital was quite a ways from the Rinaldi house, but there was no sign of Mr. and Mrs. Rinaldi.
“Nah, I took a cab. I wanted to see Carla, and Papa had to work late.”
“Your mom let you come here by yourself?”
Gianni was studying the floor tiles intently. “She doesn’t know.”
“What are you trying to do, kid, give her heart failure? She’ll miss you and worry.”
Gianni’s brown eyes looked up at me. “I’m eleven now—she doesn’t need to worry.”
Yeah, dude, that line would work better if your voice didn’t squeak like that.
“Let me just give her a call and see if I can straighten this out.” I whipped out my cell and dialed the number from memory. Needless to say, I had been right; Mrs. Rinaldi was anything but delighted to discover that her son was AWOL. However, the fact that Gianni was with me and that I was bringing him home went a long way toward keeping him from being grounded until he turned forty-five. Even though the Rinaldis hadn’t really known me that long, they had been treating me like family ever since Carla’s coma, assuming, as pretty much everyone else did, that I was Carla’s boyfriend, though in fact we had only just started to move in that direction.
“OK, Gianni, I squared it for you this time, but you can’t just take a cab again without getting your parents’ permission.”
“I’ll bet you would have done it at my age if you had to.”
Well, he had me there, but I was trying to be less impulsive these days, and I certainly wanted him to be.
He talked to Carla for awhile, telling her what had happened at school over the last couple of days. It was predictably a one-sided conversation, just like all my conversations with Carla. One could always hope, though, that Carla was taking it in, that she was getting closer to consciousness with every word.
God, his hair was exactly the same shade of black that hers was, and his facial features were so reminiscent of hers. Sometimes I found it hard to look at him. It wasn’t his fault, though, that his very presence made my mute grief even more intense. In any case, we were connected through Carla, and he already looked at me like a brother. I was responsible for taking his sister away. The least I could do was fill in for her.
Gianni hung on until the nurses pretty much kicked us out. We each gave Carla a peck on the cheek and left. As we walked out the front door, I steered Gianni to the left, toward the lot where my new Prius was parked. My parents had resisted getting me a car before, since Santa Brígida was a relatively small place, and we lived in walking distance from the high school, with downtown only a quick bus trip away. Carla’s hospital, however, was west down the 101 in Coast Village, much too far to walk and requiring a tortuously long bus ride. How could they say no? Well, they did say no to red—I was going for the color the Welsh dragon, though naturally they didn’t know that—and I ended up with that not-quite black shade, gunmetal. All things considered, it was a reasonable compromise.
As soon as we opened the front door of the hospital, I knew something was wrong. When I had gone in to see Carla, the sky had been clear, yet now all I could see in any direction was fog so thick it blotted out the world beyond the hospital steps. Sure, we were close to the ocean, but I had seen this particular kind of fog too often to believe its occurrence was natural. Indeed, every time I had seen fog this thick in the last few months, it meant that something supernatural—and usually bad—was about to happen.
“Gianni, go back inside for a minute. It’s better if I bring the car around.” I glanced in his direction, but he was fascinated by the glow of the distant parking-lot lights in the fog and didn’t seem to be listening.
“Gianni…” I started again, more emphatically, but before I could get any further, a figure appeared at the bottom of the steps, emerging from the fog so abruptly that I jumped a little, despite myself.
Yeah, I would know her anywhere. Same long, glossy black hair, same flawless white skin, same model perfect features and body. Only the gown was different this time: white samite, instead of the red samite I had last seen her wear, perhaps to make her more inconspicuous in the fog.
Morgan Le Fay!
“Why, Taliesin, what a pleasant surprise! I scarcely expected to run into you again. And who is your young friend?”
“Gianni, get inside!” I barked the order in Welsh, knowing he wouldn’t remember afterward what had happened. In response to my magic, he turned quickly toward the door.
“No, Gianni, please stay here!” cooed Morgan, also in Welsh. I could feel the magic behind the words, and so could Gianni, who froze, his hand still in midair, reaching toward the door handle.
I needed to get Gianni away from Morgan, but I didn’t want his mind pulled in two different directions by two powerful spell casters. My research prior to the battle against Ceridwen gave me the upper hand with certain kinds of magic, but Morgan was at least as powerful as I with simple mind manipulation, if not more so.
Without hesitation I drew my sword, White Hilt, and flames instantly engulfed its blade. Perhaps if Morgan were distracted enough, she would lose her focus on Gianni, and he would follow my original command.
“I see your manners have not improved since last time. I only want to talk.” Morgan’s voice conveyed an icy calm, but I noticed she did back away a step.
“You tried to kill me last time,” I pointed out, trying to sound reasonable and not betray one freezing instant of the fear that frosted my heart. It was not that I was that afraid of facing Morgan in general. I was afraid of facing her with Gianni only a few steps away and totally vulnerable to any malign magic she might hurl at him.
“Some of my actions last time were…ill-advised. I let Ceridwen talk me into attacking you and your friends. What I did was foolish, and I crave your forgiveness.”
Well, an apology from Morgan was certainly a surprise—but it was probably also a trick, a way of lulling me into a false sense of security.
“My forgiveness you can have…if you bind yourself with the most solemn oath never to cross my path again.” I made sure to keep White Hilt ready and flaming. Having learned to manipulate that flame, I even made it blaze a little hotter.
“That I cannot do, for the universe often plays tricks on us. Our paths may cross, whether I will them to or not. After all, it was Ceridwen who threw you into my little corner of Annwn, and I truly did not intend to meet you tonight. I am as surprised as you are to find you here. My errand is not connected with you in any way, though as long as you are here, you may be able to help me with it.”
I watched the undulating flames reflect in her eyes and thought I could see some uneasiness in those eyes as well. If Morgan had actually been looking for me, she would certainly have prepared a way to counter White Hilt’s flame. Perhaps she was telling the truth—at least about the meeting being accidental.
I heard Gianni gasp next to me. While Morgan bantered with me, he had been trying to reconcile the two contradictory magic commands and obviously not succeeding. If neither of us released him, he might continue to struggle until he injured his mind.
“Morgan, release the boy, and I will hear you out.” Morgan was doubtless loath to relinquish the advantage of having Gianni’s safety to hold over my head, but she could see as well as I that the current situation could easily become a stalemate, and she clearly wanted something—if not my help, then at least my willingness to let her do whatever she had come for. She bowed, I could feel her attempted compulsion on Gianni relax, and he unsteadily propelled himself through the door, finally free to respond to my original instructions.
“Now then,” she began as soon as the door closed behind Gianni, “I am in search of my sister. Not long ago I received a prophecy that she would soon re-emerge in the world of men, and now I feel her somewhere nearby. She is close, Taliesin, very close indeed.”
I looked at her quizzically. “Morgause? She is dead, surely.”
Morgan gave me one of her glacial smiles. “Before this fall, you would have said the same of me, and I the same of you. Yet here we are.”
“Well, I did die, as you know, and was reincarnated. And I told you when you were seeking Lancelot, I have no art to find the person in whom a specific soul has reincarnated. So if Morgause is again living in this world, she could be anywhere, for all I know. On the other hand, if she, like you, has found a way to cheat death, I might be able to find her—but so could you, and I suspect far easier than I.”
“Actually, it is not Morgause I seek, but my other sister, Alcina.” I must have looked even more puzzled, and for a moment I thought Morgan was going to lose her temper with me. Then she regained control of herself and added, “You would remember her as Elaine.”
“Elaine! Yes, I remember that Arthur had a half-sister named Elaine, but she left long before the fall of Camelot.”
“Yes, she found the atmosphere at Camelot somewhat…stifling, and unlike me, she had no particular scores to settle. She wandered through Europe, searching for ways to enhance her magic, and she found quite a few. She settled on an island, not exactly in Annwn, but certainly in an otherworld of some sort. Unfortunately, that island has been empty for centuries, and it contains no clue of what might have become of her.”
“Surely,” I began, again trying to sound reasonable, “the likelihood that she randomly ended up in Santa Barbara must be remote, even if she is still alive.”
“I feel her,” snapped Morgan. “I feel her as I have not felt her in hundreds of years. She is nearby—of that I am certain.”
If Elaine, or Alcina, or whatever she was calling herself these days, was nearby, the last thing I wanted was for Morgan to find her. After all, Morgan was quite dangerous enough on her own. Letting her reunite with a sister whose magic might be even more powerful than her own was about as desirable as pounding a nail into my forehead, but how could I stop her, short of killing her? I had certainly killed my share of people in earlier lives, but I wasn’t exactly eager to continue that habit in this one. Then there was the fact that Morgan would certainly fight back, and a battle between us could get extremely messy, to say the least.
And Gianni, not to mention Carla, was in the building right behind us. So, at least in theory, was Morgan’s sister, but I couldn’t take the chance that the possible risk to Elaine would restrain Morgan enough. She seemed rational enough at the moment, but I had seen more than enough over the last few weeks to make me question her sanity.
I needed to play for time, to find a way to slow Morgan down while holding out the possibility that I might help her.
“If Elaine is so close,” I began, “and you can sense her presence, why has she not sensed yours? Surely she would have appeared by now and given you a sisterly greeting.”
I had just been fishing for some way to keep the conversation going, but as soon as I asked the question, I realized it was a reasonable one, and so did Morgan. Good as she was at concealing her feelings, she was clearly a bit perplexed.
“I have asked myself the same question. Taliesin, she is only a little farther away from me than you are—I know it as surely as I know my own name. She should at least have noticed me. However, I am looking for her, and she is not looking for me, so perhaps—wait, now I know exactly where she is!”
I should have known that Morgan was chatting with me and reaching out for her sister at the same time. I had not gained anything at all by trying to keep the conversation going.
“She is…in the building right behind you,” said Morgan with eerie certainty.
Great. The one place I least wanted Morgan to be, and that was the one spot she was determined to go.
“She can’t be, Morgan. I just came from in there. Surely I would have noticed a presence as strong as hers.”
“Perhaps not,” said Morgan, regarding me with interest. “I share a bond of blood with her that you do not. What I feel is that bond calling to me. Her power I do not feel at all. That suggests two possibilities: she is hiding from something, or she has lost her powers. Either way she needs my help.” Morgan took a step forward. I let the flame on my sword blaze brighter.
“I am not about to let you into this hospital, whether your sister is inside or not, Morgan.”
Her eyes blazed brighter than my sword, but she did not immediately let her anger have free reign.
“My little cherub,” she said softly. “A little cherub with his flaming sword, guarding the gates. Why are you so intent on keeping me from helping my own sister? I know you understand the importance of family ties.”
That last line could easily be interpreted as a threat, but I decided to ignore it for the moment.
“Because I don’t trust you,” I said simply, getting White Hilt to flame higher for effect. I figured there was not much point in maintaining a pretense of friendliness at this point. “You did try to kill me and my friends, and you would have been quite content to leave my soul trapped in Ceridwen’s cauldron forever. You can’t think a simple apology really covers all of that.”
“My little cherub—”
“Not so little, Morgan, and with thousands of years of experience, as you will find out if you keep pushing me.”
“No, not so little at that,” replied Morgan, feigning a thoughtful tone and looking me up and down. “Not so little at all. Perhaps I have been foolish to think mere words would satisfy you. Perhaps mine is the kind of apology that needs to be delivered…in bed.”
“Morgan…” I began, then had to pause as she stared into my eyes, plainly trying to enchant me. I could feel seductive energy oozing all around my defenses, probing them, poking at them. Fortunately, for someone like me, all Morgan could do was increase the natural temptation, not actually control my mind. At least, I hoped that was all she could do. I started humming, just to be sure. The original Taliesin’s magic worked best with musical accompaniment, and so naturally did mine. Too bad I didn’t have an instrument with me…
Morgan apparently took my humming to indicate I was nervous about my defenses and tried to press her advantage. “I know the girl you love cannot be your lover now, perhaps ever. Nonetheless, I would not insult you by asking you to betray that love. I offer you only physical satisfaction. A man like you must have…needs, needs that a woman like me could certainly satisfy. I have had hundreds of years of experience, after all. Come to think of it, so have you. Our coupling would have to be magnificent.”
Keeping in mind that in this life I was still a sixteen-year-old guy, I wouldn’t pretend her offer, backed up by magic or not, wasn’t appealing on some level. Being a teenage guy wasn’t easy in the first place; imagine what it was like being a teenage guy who could remember hundreds of years of sexual experiences from previous lives. Let’s just say I didn’t need to spend any time searching for porn on the Internet. I did have to spend a lot of time reconciling my urge to reenact some of those earlier sexual experiences with my desire to be at least a halfway decent guy by the standards of my current society. Morgan herself complicated the issue still further. She was, after all, a beautiful woman, fashion-model beautiful. Her mistake was in reminding me that she was really older than dirt. I couldn’t help thinking of the skeleton she’d be right now without all the magic she had expended to keep herself forever young.
What really reinforced my defenses, though, was the jolt of fear that shot through me when I realized that Morgan knew about Carla. Morgan must have been spying on me, just as Ceridwen used to—and Morgan was definitely not someone you wanted knowing all of your secret vulnerabilities.
I suddenly realized the light from White Hilt was fading. I again urged the flames to a great blaze, gave myself the mental equivalent of a cold shower, and focused all my attention on Morgan again.
“I’m not so easy to get around,” I said to her with a certainly I did not completely feel. Morgan, not expecting such an outright rejection, at least not so quickly, let some of her rage show.
“Do you really think you can stop me, Taliesin?” she replied harshly. “You took me by surprise once in Annwn. You will not do so again.” With that, Morgan threw herself into the concealing fog faster than should have been possible—had she been a mere human. Unfortunately, she was part faerie and capable of moving faster than I was—not superhero fast, but fast enough to conceal herself in her fog before I could fling the fire from my sword at her in a burst that would have reduced her to ashes. But who was I kidding? Even had I been moving at the same speed, I probably wouldn’t have roasted her. I just didn’t want to kill, not even someone like her. At least, not until I absolutely had to, a point I might reach any minute now.
After all, Morgan could do more than hide herself in the fog. Like most Celtic sorcerers, she could shape-shift into something tiny like a fly, then get into the hospital through an open window on the third floor before I could stop her. Worse, she could use the weather itself against me. The results would not be instantaneous, but in a surprisingly short period of time, she could fry me with lightning right where I stood and step over my charred corpse on the way to the front door.
I could try to counter such a tactic, but Morgan was stronger than I in a straight battle of magic against magic. True, I had learned how to make magic work on modern technology, which as far as I could tell, no one else had managed, and I had another trick or two up my sleeve, like being able to read and broadcast thoughts in a way that would have astounded the original Taliesin. However, there was no denying that in a contest of raw power, Morgan would beat me.
As if on cue, a chilling wind cut through me. So Morgan was going to try storm over stealth.
I did understand meteorology better than she did—that’s how I had beaten her that time in Annwn. But then I had used my fire and my scientific knowledge to counter her storm and ended up creating a hurricane to use against her. I couldn’t very well do that this time, and Morgan knew it—I had made it very clear that I valued something, or someone, inside the building. My options were limited by the need to protect that structure. A hurricane born of the clash between her magic and mine could probably not be controlled precisely enough to be safe to use this close to the hospital.
Predictably enough, rain started hitting me in ice-cold drops, and the flames on my sword sputtered a little. That was part of Morgan’s goal: put out the sword.
I might already be too late, but I knew I needed to summon help.
“Nurse Florence, I need you…ten minutes ago!” I gave the message every ounce of power I possessed, but that kind of mental communication did weaken with distance, and Nurse Florence, our resident lady of the lake, was probably miles away in Santa Brígida. Still, if I managed to connect, I could send her a message without Morgan even realizing I had summoned help.
“Should I bring backup?” Her response tingled in the back of my mind, faint but unmistakable.
“Any of the guys you can grab fast. Morgan Le Fay is trying to find her sister Elaine—in Carla’s hospital. Morgan’s raising a storm.”
“I’ll be there as soon as I can.”
I felt the connection fade, but at least now I knew help was coming…eventually. Nurse Florence did have some rather unusual methods of transportation at her disposal. The question was how fast she could get to any of my…well, warriors, for lack of a better term. Since they had to conceal their unusual…situation, just as I did mine, they couldn’t always appear right on cue, even in an emergency.
Well, no point fussing about how fast my allies could get here. I needed to focus entirely on countering Morgan’s arcane attack. In the short time it had taken me to reach Nurse Florence, the wind had intensified until its howl was like that of a rabid wolf, the rain was practically knocking me off my feet, and my sword was radiating more steam than fire. Just in time, I willed the flames to become stronger, to burn back the rain, to envelope me in a flaming shield. I had to concentrate so hard I was shaking, but for the moment I was protected—unless of course someone tried to walk out the front door of the hospital, in which case I would have another problem.
The powers that be in Annwn were none too pleased that so many people already knew my secret. Nurse Florence they accepted as practically one of their own, and they could have swallowed my “warriors.” It was the fact that I wouldn’t wipe the memories of the other students who had been with us in the final battle during Samhain that really irked them. The leadership in Annwn was all about keeping humans from learning too much. So, yeah, if anyone saw the display I was currently putting on, I would have to wipe that person’s memory of it—but I would have to keep him or her out of Morgan’s way first. Too many complications.
I knew it was risky trying to “multi-task” with magic, but I did manage to jam the door behind me, and the sudden temperature drop created by Morgan’s storm made it easy for me to frost the nearby windows. The manner in which the entry way of the hospital projected out from the rest of the building would block the view of what I was doing from a lot of those windows, but I wanted to be as careful as I could be.
Even that slight change of focus thinned my fire shield a bit, and as the rain’s fury increased, it brought the shield near to collapse. It took every bit of concentration I had to stabilize the situation. I started singing softly in Welsh to amplify my power as much as possible. Even so, I knew I could not hold out indefinitely. I had to hope that the cavalry would arrive—soon.
It also worried me that, with this storm raging, Morgan could very easily slip in through some other point of entry while I was blocking the front door. I thought about trying to locate her in the fog, but I guessed she would be masking her presence as much as she could, forcing me to give more of my focus to finding her than I dared right now. I had to depend on her desire to kill me, or at least render me helpless, to keep her outside as long as I was still breathing and conscious.
The lightning flash almost made me jump, and the thunder was loud enough to rattle some of the nearby hospital windows. That lightning was powerful, and it was close. My fire shield might protect me from the rain, but it probably wouldn’t stop the lightning, though I was having a hard time thinking through the science involved. The hiss of steam as the rain hit the fire sounded almost deafening now, but even it wasn’t enough to drown out the reverberations of the thunder.
Between the racket and my need to concentrate on maintaining the fire shield, I spared a second to wonder what had happened to Gianni. Even inside the hospital such a sudden and intense storm must have been quite noticeable; probably one of the nurses had spotted him and was now keeping him from coming outside to look for me, but he had to be getting awfully worried by now, and I wasn’t sure whether my command to go inside would keep him inside—I was working too fast at the time to consider all the contingencies. Well, I didn’t want to think too much about that; at least he was safe inside right now, and I was pretty sure someone would keep him inside. That was the most I could hope for at the moment.
I was beginning to feel tired. No, not just tired—more like exhausted. Morgan was hitting me with everything she had, though I did wonder why the lightning, which must be striking nearby, wasn’t actually hitting me. I wasn’t really trying to deflect it, because doing that would take too much power away from the fire shield, but perhaps countering the lightning was more important. If I concentrated on the lightning, I knew I could keep it from striking really close—I had seen that kind of magical defense before. However, if the fire shield collapsed, as it very likely would, the rain would beat down on me so mercilessly that, at the very least, my concentration would shatter. In this kind of situation, logic suggested retreating inside the building, especially since Morgan believed her sister was inside and couldn’t exactly level the place. She could, however, follow me in, and I wanted to keep our fight outside if I possibly could.
“Taliesin, let me in!”
I jumped at the sound of the voice coming from right next to me. It was not the voice I wanted to hear, but it was at least someone who would help. I parted the flames on my left just long enough for Vanora to jump through.
Yeah, that’s right—the same person I held responsible for Carla’s condition. Not only that, but she was still disguised as Carrie Winn, the identity Ceridwen had assumed while she was stalking me. Carrie Winn was too prominent a citizen to just disappear, so Vanora had shifted into Winn’s form long enough to keep us all from getting entangled in a police investigation and to tie up other loose ends. Intellectually I understood the need for such a deception. Emotionally, it was hard for me to look at someone who had been willing to condemn me to eternal suffering, no matter how often I told myself that the person really was dead, and what I was seeing was merely an illusion. It was a damn convincing illusion though. I guess it would have to be to serve its purpose. Still…
Vanora knew I didn’t like her, in the shape of Carrie Winn or in her natural form, but she was too business-like to acknowledge my surly glance in her direction.
“Viviane’s gathering the others. She asked me to help you hold out until they got here.”
I had to hand it to her for being cool in a crisis. Without skipping a beat, she started casting a spell to keep the lightning from hitting us. I had seen her do the same thing on Samhain, and it had worked. Between the two of us, we could certainly hold Morgan until the others arrived.
The situation didn’t make me like Vanora any better—but I had to admit, however grudgingly, that she was a worthy adversary for Morgan.
Of course, Morgan would quickly sense that she now had more than one opponent, but I doubted she could up her game enough to destroy both of us. At least, I hoped not. There was perhaps more danger of her trying to outflank us and get into the building, but Morgan was not the type to leave two enemies at large in such close proximity to her. Or was that just more wishful thinking on my part?
“Taliesin, let me in!”
This time I froze rather than jumping. I had expected the others to show up soon, so hearing someone else asking to be let inside the fire shield should not have caused my heart to skip a beat. The problem was that the voice outside was Vanora’s, just as it had been a couple of minutes before.
I already knew Morgan was a shape-shifter, so I shouldn’t really have been surprised. The problem was, who was the fake Vanora—the woman standing next to me, or the woman outside? If I guessed wrong, things could get really nasty really quickly…
The Vanora already inside with me, however, had known who else was coming, something Morgan, who couldn’t read minds, probably wouldn’t know. On the other hand, now that I thought about it, Morgan’s faerie ancestry gave her advantages beyond the speed I had seen earlier. For one thing, her vision was much better than the human norm. The darkness would not have been much of a problem for her, and as the sorceress who had conjured the fog and storm, she should have been able to see through them pretty easily as well, even though I couldn’t. Logically, she should have been able to see Vanora arrive. But in that case, why shift into the image of Vanora? She could have fooled me much more easily by becoming Nurse Florence, whom I would have let in without question. She had to know I would not just passively accept two Vanoras. Why was my life always so complicated?
“That has to be Morgan,” observed the Vanora standing next to me, her eyes narrowed in concentration, most of her attention focused on keeping the lightning from hitting us. “Perhaps you should give her a…warm welcome.”
I tried to gently probe them both, but typically I didn’t have much luck getting into the minds of powerful spell casters, and so I couldn’t read much more than their power. Casters such as they consciously or unconsciously created shields to protect their minds from the wide variety of mental attacks an opponent might hurl at them. The ancient Celts hadn’t visualized reading minds in the way that I had trained myself to do, but the kind of mental shielding Morgan and Vanora had kept me out pretty effectively anyway. By now maintaining such shields had become almost second-nature to them, so maintaining that defense did not require much effort on their parts unless I attacked their shielding—something I didn’t dare do until I knew who was who.
I caused the flames to blaze up on the side from which I had heard the other Vanora’s voice come—but slowly enough to give her a chance to dodge out of the way, which she did.
“Taliesin,” said the second Vanora, in what was, at the very least, a good imitation of her real Vanora’s indignant tone, “what are you doing?”
“Demonstrating I’m not that easily fooled, Morgan,” I replied, putting a lot of emphasis on that name. “The real Vanora is already here.”
“No, she isn’t,” insisted the second Vanora loudly. “You must have Morgan inside with you.”
Well, she must have been right, because at that moment I felt a very sharp, very cold dagger thrust into my right arm.